I was delighted to get your letter asking for hadracha in your learning. The fact that you are asking for hadracha is in itself the greatest step towards recharging your drained spiritual batteries.
Mori v’rebbi Rav Moshe Shapira zt”l once asked me, “Why should I fly to America for an AJOP convention? They have gedolim right there who can inspire and answer questions.” I suggested he should go because he has many talmidim who went into chinuch and kiruv with dreams of being kovea itim on the level of the “good old days” in yeshiva and kollel. This never happened or never lasted. Today they immerse themselves in their work while their own Torah growth stagnates. They need Rav Moshe to be m’orer them to get back on the right path. They need chizuk so that they can get out of their rut. Rav Moshe responded and basically said, “You are right! For this alone it is worthwhile to travel to America!”
You have heard this throughout your life. Im bechukosai taylaychu – shetiheyu ameylim b’Torah. Toiling in Torah unleashes all the goodness in life. The Mechaber (YD 246:1) paskens “Vhigisa bo yomam v’layla” literally. Unless one has a legitimate reason not to learn, one should be studying day and night. He quotes the Rambam who rejects all the excuses one has not to learn. The Rambam names them one by one and leaves the most famous excuse for last: “Even someone who is married with children.” They have the most “l’shaym shomayim” excuses!
Today he would have concluded with, “Even a mechanech and a mekarev!”
My female students sometimes ask me for my definition of a “ben Torah.” This often comes up after someone has told them that marrying a ben Torah is crucial for a woman to get into Olam Haba (see Gemara Brachos 17a)! I answer that it is not necessarily someone who learns a lot in quantity. It is someone who relates to when he learns as the centerpiece of his day. Even if it is one or two hours, his twenty-four clock flows from those one or two hours. This is the “omek” of how Reb Chaim explains the bracha, “Birkas HaTorah.” The bracha is not a regular birkas hamitzvah or shevach v’hoda’a. It is a bracha that celebrates a lifestyle that places Torah study as the centerpiece of our day. It is also the omek of why the Shulchan Aruch (which is unusual for a halacha sefer) quotes the Gemara in Shabbos which states that our Yom Hadin after 120 begins with “Kavata itim laTorah? Was Torah the centerpiece of your life?”
Ramchal (Derech Hashem 4:3) defines Torah as accessing Hashem’s Kavod. In a sense it is “plugging into His mind.” That’s why Matan Torah was a marriage; Torah allows intimacy between us and our Creator. And since Olam Haba is the experience of the infinite joy of closeness to Hashem, by definition Torah study is the key to Olam Haba.
Ramchal (ibid) explains that the kinyan of Torah can only obtained through ameylus. Furthermore, it can only be obtained by working simultaneously on our middos. Hence a true ben Torah is a better husband, father, son and friend. He also has inner peace that allows him to experience true inner happiness. As Dovid Hamelech sang, “Luley Torascha sha’ashuay az avaditity b’onyi.”
KIRUV WITHOUT TORAH
Crucially, toiling in Torah is the key to our success in chinuch and kiruv. (Note: The Kloizenberger Rebbe Matos – Masai 5733 has a beautiful essay explaining this concept). So many people miss this point. Someone sacrifices Torah study on the altar of “numbers” and “impact.” It looks like you have been successful and you impress your employers. But look closer and you will see the success is fleeting. In the long run your accomplishments are negligible. Or perhaps you have z’chusim though your tefillos and your yiras Shamayim. Or your students have zchusim through the tefillos and tears of the “alte bubbas.” But Hashem’s position is very clear – all kiruv is through Him. “Osay nifla’os levado” – Hashem does not need you to do kiruv. He gives you the privilege of being a partner in bringing his children home. And He wants you to put your Torah learning first. Imperatively, through your Torah learning you create the environment where Hashem can do His chinuch and kiruv “magic.” That way, and only that way, the changes are real and lasting.
How ironic. Every morning we beg Hashem, “V’haer einaynu b’Sorosecha – Enlighten me in Your Torah.” But if we are not learning properly, we never give Him the chance. We are too busy teaching and telling others to learn Torah…
SO WHAT IS TORAH?
The baseline is the ameylus in Torah that we were taught in yeshiva, namely learning Talmud b’iyun. All our gedolim, whether in the Litvish, Chassidish or Sephardic world, found their initial greatness in toiling over a blatt Gemara. All our yeshivas make “iyun seder” the overwhelming majority of their day. How do you “plug into Hashem’s mind?” By accessing the svaros of Abaye and Rava. There are no shortcuts. Obviously there are many other parts of Torah, and we are expected to know them all, especially halacha. But the essential “toil” which opens up the gates of shefa in this world and the next, will always be found in understanding a difficult Rashi, Tosphos and Rashba.
THE MAHARAL’S MASHPECH
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:15 states, “Arba middos b’yoshvim lifnei chachamim: sfog, umashpech, meshameres v’nafa etc. mashpech: shemachnis b’zo umotzi b’zo.” There are four types of talmidim who sit before the chachamim: (1) the sponge, (2) the funnel, (3) the strainer and (4) the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.
When explaining the Maharal’s depiction of the “funnel student,” Rav Moshe described a talmid who when hearing a shiur is already thinking how he can give it over to his own students. He studies to teach. He has become a funnel, never allowing his learning to become part of his essence. The true mechanech must learn like a sieve, retaining the fine flour until it is completely absorbed.
Rav Moshe always warned us to separate our personal learning from what we prepare to teach. He did not mean that we can never learn a page of Gemara or a section of Chumash for the purpose of giving it over. He meant that if we do, it must be in two stages. First learn up the sugya the way we did in yeshiva. Then, when we have mastered the material to the best of our capabilities, we can ask ourselves, what should be given over to our students from what we have learned?
LO BASHAMAYIM HEE
At this point you are possibly deeply frustrated with what you are reading. Let me guess. You are thinking, “This is hopelessly unrealistic with the craziness of my daily schedule! It’s just not possible to harmonize the world I had in yeshiva with the world that I live in now.”
There are two steps in making it possible. The first is in the mind. You have to “buy in” to what was written above. You have to feel in your gut that going a day without learning is like going a day without food or personal hygiene. Or as Rav Moshe put it, a person missing a limb can still function as a person, be he is still “mechusar ayver.”
Rav Baruch Ber protested when a prominent rov described Torah as the air that we breathe. He said it is much more than that. It is life itself.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch shlit”a gave a powerful moshel to describe how you can remain a “yeshiva bochur” throughout your professional life. In Israel a soldier is expected to work out every day to maintain his fitness and once a year do “miluim” for a month. He can be a doctor, lawyer or a taxi driver, but he remains a soldier. Similarly, you learn every day whenever you can and every so often you do a “Yarchei Kalla” miluim where you take off from your schedule for full-time study. You are a professional – but you remain a yeshiva bochur.
Step two is to look carefully at your current schedule and see what you can create. Most kiruv professionals can take off time early in the morning. Or find (say) an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. It has to be “keva” – locked into your schedule. During that time your phones are off (not secretly on vibrate!) and your whole world is focused on the Gemara in front of you.
See if you can “steal” other hours here and there during the week. They could be used to fill in the other branches of learning. Once again, try and make it “keva.”
O CHAVRUSA O MISUSA
Do everything you can to find a compatible chavrusa. First, the learning is on a totally different level, Torah niknis b’chabura – the way to acquire Torah is with a study partner. Secondly, it “locks in the keva.” You have someone waiting for you. The commitment is totally different. Today, with platforms like Skype, you can have a chavrusah with someone anywhere in the world.
Furthermore, make an effort to learn in a Bais Hamedrash. See Brachos 63b. You may not have access to the roar of the Mir, but hopefully your local community has a place that has the Kol Torah and “kedushas Bais Hamedrash.” You will know yourself that your learning has a different level of chashivus.
By the way, make sure that some of your learning is done at home. You wife and especially your children need to see you learning. As Rav Moshe told a friend of mine, today we have no guarantee that our kids will grow up frum. Seeing their father learning is a vital component in their chinuch.
WHAT SHOULD I LEARN?
This very much depends on (a) your learning personality and (b) what is available in terms of chavrusas and Bais Hamedrash. Ideally it should be classic Gemara b’iyun. But not everyone is cut out for that and if you do not enjoy your learning, it will not last. You need what Chazal call the “libo chofetz” – the excitement and geshmack in what you learn. Examples of styles of learning include:
- “Fast iyun” focusing on “Gemara, Rashi & Tosphos.”
- “Slow b’kiyus” where you learn Gemara with Rashi but really try and understand everything well.
- Daf Hayomi. Small request – please try and be an active learner not passively listening to someone else give over the shiur! If you use ArtScroll, try and go over the daf afterwards with a regular Gemara. Learn the daf as a citizen, not a tourist.
- Halacha b’iyun, studying Shulchan Aruch with meforshim.
- Rav Moshe once suggested to a friend of mine (a Middle School rebbi) to have a seder in Tur with Bais Yosef. He pointed out that it gives you has a lot of svaros of lomdus but also bekius in Gemaras and halacha.
If these choices are for you, try at least once a week to have a seder in something that pushes your mind that extra bit in the realm of classic lomdus. Some options:
- Once a week have a chavrusah in a sefer of lomdus you enjoy. Something like Shev Shmaytsa or the Brisker Rov or whatever works for you.
- Take one segment of what you learned that week and go a little deeper. Today there are all kinds of reference seforim that send you to the appropriate “shtikel” from Reb Elchonon or your favorite Rosh Yeshiva.
- Reb Shmuel Ross of Vancouver arranged a Thursday night “get together” of mechanchim with a local maggid shiur. They had an hour to prepare marei mekomos and then they had a short shiur. What a z’chus to organize something similar!
- NCSY sponsors a weekly online chaburah (email@example.com) which I have the z’chus to teach. We are going through Mesechta Brachos b’iyun. Every week I distribute marei mekomos and on Thursday night at 11:00pm EST, I teach a lomdus shiur with a twist of halacha l’maaseh. It is then uploaded here for chazarah. You are welcome to join!
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I think it is important that mechanchim, especially in kiruv, know Sifrei Yesod. Since a lot of your time you will be teaching hashkafa, it should be a matter of principle that you know the classic seforim. Unfortunately, I hear mechanchim who have been years in the field quoting their rebbi, Rav Leff or Rav Soloveitchik when in fact they are just quoting a Ramban on Chumash. If you set aside just an hour a week, learning (preferably with a chavrusa) a Sifrei Yesod, you will notice the difference over the years. Your knowledge and the way you teach ideas over will be on a different level and will have a ring of authenticity that your students will notice.
Rav Wolbe has a few lists of the basic seforim one should know (see for example Alei Shor 2:176). Here is my abridged version:
- RASHI on Chumash.
- RAMBAM (1) Shemoneh Perakim (2) Hakdama to Chelek (3) Mishneh Torah Hilchos Yesodei Torah (rush through Chapters 3 and 4); Hilchos Deos; Hilchos Talmid Torah; Hilchos Avoda Zara (chapter one) and Hilchos Melachim.
- RAMBAN on Chumash. Rav Yerachmiel Fried (of Dallas) published a booklet with the classic hashkafa Ramban’s on each parsha.
- RABBEINU YONA’S Shaarei Teshuva and his peirush on Pirkei Avos.
- KUZARI The first three maamarim.
- CHOVOS HALEVOVOS at least Shaar Habechina and Shaar Habitachon.
- RAMCHAL (1) Mesillas Yesharim (2) Derech Hashem (The first two chelakim) and (3) (less important) Daas Tevunos.
- NEFESH HACHAYIM.
- MAHARAL. At some point in your life you should learn a sefer of the Maharal. The easiest (and shortest) would be Ner Mitzva (Chanukah and the Four Galiyos).
- SIFREI CHASSIDUS. Similarly, at some point you should learn some Chassidus from the original text. It is very much a matter of taste whether you like (for example) Sfas Emes, Shem MiShmuel or Reb Tzadok. But if you are learning without experience, the easiest place to start is Nesivos Shalom, as he explains himself well.
- SIFREI MUSSAR and HASHKAFA from the last hundred years. Once again, this is a matter of taste. The advantage of learning the late masters is that it is easier to know exactly what they mean. They are closer to our generation so their seforim “speak to us.”
Chupp Arein is a great Yiddish phrase. It is the yeshivish version of Carpe Diem. I mentioned above to look for “stolen sedarim,” hours in your weekly schedule which you can set aside for learning. You can use these mini-sedarim to be mashlim the non-Gemara areas of your learning, such as Chumash, halacha and sifrei mussar v’hashkafa.
On Shabbos it is especially important to have mini-sedarim. The seforim say that learning Torah on Shabbos has a far greater impact than learning during the week. It is an ideal time to learn parsha and seforim that bring out the deeper dimension of machshava.
A general note: It could be that your wife would like to learn with you. You get a great chavrusah plus special bonding time rolled into one!
The Alter M’Kelm taught us to create micro-sedarim. You can create chupp arein moments that are easily accessible. For example:
- Five minutes after (or before) Shacharis.
- Have a sefer next to your bed and learn something inspirational so that you fall asleep with Torah thoughts.
- Have a sefer in shul, especially Shabbos morning, to learn, for example, in between the aliyos. Totally off the record: I have seen Roshei Yeshivos with seforim in their hands during chazaras hashatz – against the ruling of the Mishneh Brurah. But if anyhow you are not following the shatz it makes much more sense than checking your phone.
- Always have a sefer in your pocket. Today everything comes in mini sizes. So you can chupp arein as you are waiting in line at the checkout counter. The Chasam Sofer made a siyum hashas from the moments he gleaned waiting for buses. You can easily make a siyum mishnayos!
- Make sure your car has CD’s, MP3’s or the latest equivalent so you can fulfill the mitzva of “uvelechtecha vaderech.”
THE BIG TEST
The main goal of this letter is not about the quantity that you learn but about the consistency. Asay Torascha keva. The biggest challenges are when life becomes stressful (and it will – Hashem likes to keep us close!). You may have to learn less, but you cannot lose the consistency. Make sure before an event like a Shabbaton you work out a realistic plan that keeps you learning every day. Do not miss “your weekly shiur” even if it means rearranging the world around you so that your “kviyus” is not lost. If you are running a TJJ bus, figure out a minimal plan that is daily and consistent – even if it is for fifteen minutes. This summer I saw a senior advisor get up early every day (after his four hours sleep!) to make sure he started his day with learning. These are the moments of truth when you find out if your learning is truly part of you.
KIRUV MAN WITH THE PLAN
Perhaps this is the most important point of all. Your learning must come with a plan for growth. It is best to learn one mesechta at a time. Try and make a siyum on the mesechta and bask in the sense of accomplishment. Then start another mesechta. And then another mesechta. Remember to invite me to your siyum on Shas!
If you take a sefer yesod – learn it until you finish it. If you set aside time on Shabbos for parsha, first finish Rashi, then do the Ramban’s. Every year choose a new peirush on Chumash based on what you enjoy. This way you feel you have a tfisa in that peirush. Avoid “likkutim” where someone else has collected ideas on the parsha. You may get a quick dvar Torah – but you will have no sense of growth in limmud Chumash.
Even your “micro-sedarim” should be with a cheshbon. A page of Shmiras Shabbos K’hilchoso may take five minutes – but one day you will wake up and realize you have made a kinyan on Hilchos Shabbos.
Never allow your learning to get stagnant. Every so often do a cheshbon hanefesh and ask yourself, what can I do to stimulate my learning? Can I accomplish more?
As the years roll by you will see your accomplishments. Like a good wine, the geshmack of learning gets better and better. It is something to get excited for in your “golden years.” The physical world is temporary. The Torah you learn can never be taken away from you. It is the greatest gift you can give to your wife, your children and Klal Yisrael. It will be there for you like a beloved friend in this world and the next. May you be zocheh!!